The Who of home

By David A. Liapis

Have you ever contemplated what heaven is like? Have you wondered if there really will be streets made of actual gold, or if we’ll be able to telepathically communicate? Do you envision being issued a harp and then allotted a cloud where you’ll spend eternity floating around strumming on the strings while a halo glows over your angelic head?

Unfortunately (but, maybe fortunately), the Bible devotes relatively few verses to the details of the “home” that Christians await. We do know there will be no tears, “and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, no pain anymore…” (Revelation 21:4); and there will be a river and tree of life (Rev 22:1-2), feasting (Rev 19:9), and the presence of those who have trusted in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). We know that there will be a “new heaven and new earth” (2 Peter 3:13) that God’s throne will be there in heaven (Daniel 7:9).

“That’s all great, but what will we do for all eternity? Play a harp? Sing in a massive choir?” I’ve heard those questions before. I’ve asked them myself. I’ve joined in conversations where we spoke longingly of all the wonders and blessings of a place without anything evil or hurtful and where we are safe from the fire of Hell. I’ve contributed to speculation on what we’ll get to do in heaven, which family members and friends (and pets) will be waiting there, and what hobbies we enjoy now we’ll still be able to do once we enter the pearly gates.

We’re now four paragraphs into a discussion of heaven. Is there anything you’ve noticed missing? We’ve considered the “where” and the “what” of heaven, yes, but what about the most neglected, yet undisputedly most important, aspect of heaven – the “Who”?

It’s not uncommon for people to focus so much on the “where,” “what” and “how” of heaven that the “Who” of heaven is barely given a thought. This is most tragic because the presence of the Who – the Triune God – is the only reason heaven is heaven! “I just can’t wait to be home!” is not at all a bad desire to express, but we need to finish the thought with why it is we want to be “home.”

Throughout more than 17 years in the military I have lived in no fewer than 14 “homes” in a dozen different states and countries. Yet, when I think of “home” I think not of any of the structures in which I have lived nor of the things that were in them – the where and the what. Nor do I consider where I grew up as “home” even though that “where” holds a special place in my memory and can be brought to the forefront of my mind with a sight, scent or sound that jars loose a pleasant recollection. Rather, when I think of “home,” I think of “who” – my wife and children. It’s always been the “who” that makes a home “home.” Likewise, heaven is not a place we’ve been where resurrected memories stir within us nostalgic longings, nor is it a place where we can truly envision with certainty what it will look like and what we’ll do as if there were a website or brochure to ground our imagination in reality.

Pastor John Piper asks in his book God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself, “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?”

Anyone who answers the above question in the affirmative is probably not currently headed there since heaven is all about the “Who.” Interestingly enough, our lives here are also not about comfort, pleasure and living “our best life now.” Even this side of heaven everything we are and do is all about the “Who” of heaven. Paul the Apostle says in Romans 11:36, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.” Therefore, it’s not too early to “set our minds on things above,” as Paul says later in Colossians chapter three, and learn to know and love the “Who” of heaven now so that we long for our eternal home even more since there we know we will “always be with” the “Who” of our heavenly home.

The original terrorist

By David A. Liapis

The dictionary defines a terrorist as “a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” Therefore, Satan – the Devil, the Adversary, Lucifer – is the original terrorist, and Adam and Eve were the first victims of terrorism. Using the dictionary definition, let’s break this down.

“A person…” Satan is real. He is a person. Not a human being, but a person in the most basic sense that he exists as a being with all the necessary characteristics to qualify him as a person. He is not a myth, a legend or a man in a red suit with a pitchfork and pointy tail. He was a beautiful creature made by God to lead angelic beings in praise and worship of God. Then he fell. Now he is a master deceiver, a terrible foe and the father of terrorism.

“…who uses unlawful violence…” This might be a bit of a stretch for some, but Satan committed the most violent act imaginable in the history of the world when he assaulted Adam and Eve with words; but, not just any words. Words that were intended to kill the very spirit of humans that God had placed within them. When we think of 9/11 and how many thousands of lives were ended, and tens of thousands more directly impacted, we are astounded and angry – and rightfully so! But, when Satan attacked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the result was immediate spiritual death (as God had warned would happen) and a curse that brought death to every human who would ever live.

“…and intimidation…” Webster’s says intimidation means “to make timid or fearful: frighten; especially: to compel or deter by or as if by threats.” The Devil used subtle intimidation to gain his victory that day by causing Adam and Eve to fear that God was not good, that He was withholding something wonderful from them, and thus compelled them to eat of the forbidden fruit. 

“…especially against civilians…” Satan’s war was with God. Satan wanted to be God, so he (and a third of the angels who followed him) were cast out of heaven. Rather than foist a counter-attack where he knew he would be easily repelled, he chose to target the first civilians who were completely vulnerable in Eden. Just like the terrorists of today, Satan went for the soft target where the risk to him was low, and the attack sure to succeed.

“…in the pursuit of political aims.” As stated above, Satan’s ultimate goal was and is to overthrow the government of God and rule in His place. Since he cannot achieve that goal, he has resorted to terrorism to kill, maim and instill fear all with the aim of doing as much damage to God’s creation – especially mankind – as he can. He knows his destruction is sure, and he is doing all he can to take as many souls with him as possible.

But, we know how this all ends for the original terrorist: “…and the Devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever … then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

What do we do in the meantime? How do we live with hope in a world full of suffering and evil? And, most importantly, how do we have our name written in the book of life and so avoid same fate as Satan? The word of God in Romans 5:1-11 answer those questions most succinctly:

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

The sin of the Bark Beetle

By David A. Liapis

In 2018 the Roosevelt fire ravaged nearly 62,000 acres of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, which is otherwise some of the most stunning mountain country in the U.S. If you drive along Wyoming Highway 189 near the tiny town of Bondurant, you’ll encounter the huge burn scar where the wildfire tore through the region. Yet, right in in the midst of all the devastation and the countless gray skeletons of trees there are, seemingly inexplicably, full-sized, flourishing evergreens that somehow escaped the flames like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego escaped Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. Sometimes it was one lone pine that stood full of solitary life, and in some cases is was a small stand of trees that survived the inferno. Regardless of how the trees managed to survive, one verse stood out to me as I drove through – Psalm 1:3 speaking of the righteous person: “They are like a tree planted by streams of water.”

I am by no means an expert in dendrology, but it seems a tree’s resistance to fire has something to do with where it’s located, such as in a ravine and/or near a water source. Obviously a well-watered tree has a better chance of surviving the flames; but, there’s more to being “planted by streams of water” than just that first-order effect.

All throughout the un-burned sections of the forest you can see the telltale signs of Bark Beetle activity – thousands upon thousands of dead trees that have succumb to beetle’s lethal infestation and are now prime fuel for future blazes. It was very clear the trees that remained after the fire were not numbered among these “beetle kill” trees, which means in order to survive the day of fire, they had to withstand months and years of beetle attacks.

The Bark Beetle is not an invasive species that has recently been introduced to our forests. Rather, it has always been a part of the forest ecosystem, helping to thin the forest by killing sick and unhealthy trees, making more room for good trees to grow. However, when drought occurs, such as it has in the Western U.S. for many years, thirsty, and therefore unhealthy trees are unable to kill the invading beetle the way it should – by encasing the larvae in sap and preventing not only its own demise, but also the spread of the beetle to other trees.

In this natural analogy, the Bark Beetle is sin. It’s an ever-present nuisance that must be fought off; and, just like the trees, we can only do so if we are adequately watered. If we are like the tree in Psalm 1 – drinking from the living water of Christ and His word – then we are prepared to ward off attacks; but, just like the drought-stricken trees, if we are not well-watered, then the “sin beetle” can make a home and begin its deadly assault. Like Paul the Apostle says, “For the wages of sin is death…” in Romans 6:23.

The scariest part of this analogy is actually not having the beetle come in and bring slow and almost certain death to the tree. The scariest part is the threat of fire coming and completely destroying what little remains of the tree. In the same way, literal fire of judgment is coming and only “trees” who are healthy from being soaked in the Living Water of Jesus Christ (John 4) will be able to endure it. The question then is whether you are truly like the tree in Psalm 1 that is planted by streams of Living Water and thus able to withstand the flames, or are you the dry, unhealthy tree being slowly killed by the “sin beetle” and thus unable to avoid destruction from the fire of judgment that is sure to come?

If you have either never trusted in Jesus Christ as your Savior, or if you’re a professing Christian who is not abiding in Christ and His Word, then cry out to Him today and ask Him to plant you by streams that do not run dry where your roots can dig down deep in the soil of the Gospel and His Word, the Bible. It’s only there you will find what’s needed to be like those sparse remnants of trees – alive and thriving in spite of the consuming fire that came that destroyed everything else around them.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” – 1 Peter 1:3-9 (ESV)

Saddle up Jesus

By David A. Liapis

No, I did not forget punctuation in the headline. I’m not advising Jesus to put a saddle on a horse as if we’re in some Western movie about to head out to wrangle some cattle, like, “Saddle up, Jesus!” Nor did I use incorrect or insufficient words, as in “Sidle up next to Jesus.” No, I meant exactly what I wrote because I think many of us are guilty of wanting to do just that – throw a saddle on Jesus’ back. Allow me to explain.

In Matthew 11: 25-30, Jesus calls out to “all who labor and are heavy laden” to come to him, which is all of us. We are all bidden by the Lord of Creation to “come” to him and “find rest for [our] souls.” It’s really an amazing offer; but, there’s a caveat – that we must take Jesus’ yoke upon ourselves and learn from him. He does promise, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light;” but, the implication seems to be that we shoulder some of the burden. It’s been said about this concept of the “easy” yoke that it means the yoke is fit to us to make wearing it as comfortable as it can be. The other element here is the yoke, which is intended to bring two animals together to help (or force) them to work together in unison. The good news for us is that when we submit to Jesus’ yoke, we are not just yoked by him, but we are yoked with him, and, as the strong one, he bears the majority of the burden. This is not to say we have to work in order to be saved, so please don’t misunderstand me. The burden(s) being borne here can be taken as life in general, and the work of the kingdom more specifically (which can mean missions, church planting, serving in church, God-centered parenting, etc.). Jesus certainly cares about both.

Here’s the part though where want to “saddle up Jesus.” Rather than submitting to His yoke, we’d rather throw a saddle on him and just sit back, relax, and “let go and let God.” Or, even more telling of our desire to be at ease and in control, we also want to put a bit in His mouth and turn him wherever we wish. If we’re really honest, we’d prefer to saddle Jesus than to be yoked with him. In our pride and desire for comfort, we’d prefer a method of getting through life where Jesus does all the burden-bearing while we get all the benefits of health, wealth and prosperity in this life, and eternal bliss in the next.

However, this contradicts not only this passage of Scripture, but also many others. For example, Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” James 2:26 says, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” 1 Corinthians 15:58 also says, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

This is the great paradox Matthew 11: finding rest in labor. The key is to make sure we are truly learning from Jesus how to both work and rest His way. We can do many “Christian” things in our own strength … until our strength fails (which it will). We can do a lot of nothing and say we’re “resting in the Lord” and yet fail to what God intended for us to do. The tension between work and rest can only be resolved by knowing and resting in Jesus and working, yoked along side the one who is both stronger and wiser. The only way to know Jesus is to be with Him in prayer and reading the Bible (and not just what He wants from us – commands, rules, etc. – but knowing His character). In summary, we all need to read our Bibles more and look for not only the “what,” but the “who.” This is the only way we can rest and work simultaneously.

Photo by Los Muertos Crew from Pexels

How far would you go?

By David A. Liapis

How Far Would You Go?

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you really, truly loved God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and committed yourself to following Him no matter what? Did thoughts of selling all your possessions and moving to some remote village in Africa or Indonesia come to mind? Did you, like I have often done, pushed those thoughts away and said, “Well, that’s fine for Christians who are called to be missionaries abroad. I’m going be a missionary right here in my neighborhood”? After all, our neighbors need to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ just as much as someone who’s lives in a hut and worships animals, right? And, I can live in my comfortable home and remain in my own culture.

At least for me, there have been no lack of reasons, or, rather excuses, why I have left the real hard work of fulfilling the Great Commission to those few followers of Christ who are obviously super-spiritual, gifted and devoted. I have a job, a large family, and I struggle to share the Gospel where I am. Why would I be any better at it in more austere conditions and among a foreign people?

As if I were not already feeling schmuckity enough for my poor Great Commission report card, I recently read Jeremiah 13 and noticed something I had never seen before.

In this chapter, God wanted Jeremiah to make an illustration to show the people of Israel how they had “stubbornly followed their own heart,” served and worshiped false gods and had become “good for nothing.” In order to make his point, God told Jeremiah to buy a loincloth. No big deal, right? He was in Jerusalem and could just head down to the market and buy one. What comes next is the real gut checker.

God told Jeremiah to take the loincloth and bury it in the rocks, not outside the walls of the city or even by the Jordan river, but next the to the Euphrates river. Open a map and look at how “close” that river is to Jerusalem. Spoiler alert: it’s not. The closest bend of the Euphrates is about 400 miles from Jerusalem. Regardless, Jeremiah went and buried the loincloth as he was commanded, and then returned home – 800 miles round trip. I can’t help but wonder what went though the prophet’s mind when God spoke to him again “after many days” and told him to go fetch the loincloth and bring it back to Jerusalem. Another 800 miles across the open desert likely by foot or camel, and another month-and-a-half to two months of travel. That means Jeremiah had to travel 1,600 miles so God could make a point to a hard-hearted people who, in the end, rejected his message anyway.

This made me think anew about my willingness to follow and obey my Lord. Am I willing to do whatever I am called to do, no matter the cost? Am I willing to trust in the good and sovereign providence of my loving heavenly Father and die to myself in order that the name of Christ might be proclaimed and worshiped to the ends of the Earth? How far am I willing to go?

I’d like to say that I’m completely surrendered to Christ, but that’s not true (which is why I don’t sing that old hymn “I surrender all”). I’d like to say that I earnestly pray every day for God to change my calloused heart and give me a passion for missions, but I don’t. The truth be told, I feel like I’m really a pretty lousy Christian. It’s a good thing I have a great Savior who did all the work required for me to be adopted into the family of God and be saved from my sins – both of commission and omission.

So, how far would you go? Do you struggle, like me, to think and act as you ought, especially in light of what Jesus did for us? You’re not alone. What then shall we do? Pray. Pray that God would help us all to be more missionally-minded and willing to do whatever He calls us to do – even if it seems as absurd as hiking 1,600 miles to spoil and retrieve a pair of underwear to use as an illustration, or, if necessary, suffer or even die for Him. He’s worthy of all we are and have, and He has promised us something far greater in the life to come. We get the grace, and He gets the glory.

Photo by Alex Azabache from Pexels

Your sin is not unique

“Other than the fact we are all made by God in His image, sin is the single most common unifying factor of our human experience.”

I had the opportunity to discuss the concept of confessing sin with a few different folks on various occasions recently, and I noticed a common theme – a reluctance to admit to committing certain sins. When the people I was speaking with finally beat around the bush, hinted at, alluded to and found the most indirect way to confess something, the eventual revelation was, well, not at all shocking. One person admitted they sometimes get impatient with, and raise their voice at, their children. If you’re a parent – and human – chances are you have done this more than once. Now, I am in no way justifying yelling at kids or trying to diminish the sins of impatience and anger; but I am saying that there’s hardly a parent on this Earth who could even pretend to be shocked if someone confesses that to them.

Here’s the reality: unless you’ve committed some criminal act, chances are the sins you are ashamed to confess are not any different than the ones we all struggle with and can/should understand and not be judgmental. Anger? Yep. Me too. Pride? Sadly, most of the time. Gossip? Sorry to say, yes. Lust? Lack of self control? Envy? Unkindness? Yes, certainly, at times. You get the point, I’m sure. Other than the fact we are all made by God in His image, sin is the single most common unifying factor of our human experience. If you struggle with vanity, pride, lust, anger and just about any other sin to one degree or another, welcome to the club.

We’re all sinners, and not one of us is in a position to lord our self-perceived perfection or righteousness over someone else. Until Jesus returns and sin and death are finally destroyed forever, sin is going to be a constant reminder of the reality that we’re under a curse and in need of a Savior. As such, we should mourn the sin in our lives and seek to kill it through the Holy’s Spirit’s power, as well as encourage the same in the lives of others. We should be willing to confess our sins “one to another” (James 5:16) as well as be the kind of person who can respond with Gospel truth that results in encouragement and holiness.

Your sin is not unique. King Solomon said “there’s nothing new under the sun,” and so it is with sin. You only have to read the first few chapters of Genesis to see the first human sin, and then the pride, murder, lies, deceit, sexual perversion and immorality, rape and more that quickly followed and has plagued us ever since. The bottom line is this: 1 John 1:8-9 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (emphasis mine). We are all guilty of sin, and we all need the forgiveness offered to us by and through Jesus Christ. In that sense, we are all alike and equally in need of grace and mercy.

Let us examine ourselves and confess to God, and, as appropriate and necessary, to one another. Don’t live in quiet isolation and fear, or even pride, thinking your sin is special and no one else deals with the same thing. Rather, let us be honest, vulnerable and authentic with one another. If we do that, I think we will find the truth and power of the Gospel will begin to unify us even more than our sin.

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

How to find the right church

By David A. Liapis

If you do a Google search for “how to find the right church?” you might be surprised (and overwhelmed) by what you see at the top of the results page: “About 8,280,000,000 results (0.75 seconds).” Eight BILLION hits!?! Where do you even start?

A good place to start when looking for the right church is definitely the Bible. Close your browser, open you Bible and read the New Testament (minus the Gospels, for now). It’ll take about seven to eight hours, but you can do it. Knock it out one book a day for a couple weeks. Some books take less time to read than watching a YouTube ad. See for yourself either again or for the first time what Luke, Paul, Peter, John and others have to say about church. You may or may not be surprised to find that many of the same issues they were having then (especially in Corinth) are many of the issues we’re having now. That means a couple things. First is that Solomon was not inaccurate when he said in Ecclesiastes there’s nothing new under the sun. The second thing, and what’s most relevant right now, is that what God’s Word says about the church then is relevant, applicable and authoritative today.

Now that we’ve established the fact the Bible is the primary, relevant source for anything related to church, let me explain why I think I’m even in a position to try to offer suggestions for how to find a church.

First of all, I am not a pastor. I am not paid by, or belong to, any church, denomination or any other religious entity. I don’t consider myself Baptist, Presbyterian or any other flavor of Christian. I am not trying to steer you toward any particular denomination – or non-denomination. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that even within the denominational boxes, you can find pastors and churches who are outside the box. Every church should be assessed on its own merit; although, I will say as far as denominations that you are judged by the company you keep. In other words, if you’re looking to avoid Calvinism you might want to skip over the Sovereign Grace or reformed church in your area, or if you want to avoid infant baptism, you want to not visit the Presbyterian or Catholic church. Denominational affiliations can be helpful in general, but there are variants that make deeper inspection worthwhile if you’re having trouble finding something you’re familiar with.

Secondly, my family and I have had the relatively unique experience of “church hunting” every two to three years now for almost two decades as a military family. We have lived in eight states and two countries and visited far more cities than that for weeks or months at a time, and in each of them we sought to find a church. There are plenty of articles and books about why attending church is so important, so I will not address that here. Suffice it to say that as a family we value being a part of the visible body of Christ no matter where we are and no matter how long or short we will be there. We have attended churches from one week to four years that ranged from Baptist to Grace Brethren to Presbyterian to non-denominational to military chapels that met in beautiful stained-glass-windowed churches to elementary school gymnasiums to repurposed industrial buildings to massive contemporary church facilities. We have sat under great preachers and terrible preachers. We have sung old-time hymns with an organ accompaniment to modern praise songs with ear-drum splitting electric guitars and drums. We’ve taken communion from a communal wine chalice and large loaf of bread to individually sealed, gluten-free “crackers” and “juice.” Needless to say, our experiences have been many and varied, good and bad, and all educational.

What I am about to say is based on these experiences as well as, and primarily, the Bible. These are my opinions and recommendations, not Scripture. In other words, I’m biased, both consciously and unconsciously, and fallible. Take it for what it’s worth and nothing more.

How to choose church

As Evangelical Christians who are not beholden to a particular denomination, it’s not as simple as attending the closest (or only) Calvary Chapel or Catholic church or Latter Day Saints ward when my family travels or moves. We have to do our research and shop around to find a place where we’re both confident in the integrity of the teaching and comfortable in an environment where we can thrive and serve. We’ve learned over the years that while there are a lot of factors that go into selecting a church from the quality of the teaching and music to the mid-week week gatherings to proximity to the atmosphere of the whole thing (and for those with kids, the nursery and children’s ministries), there are certain elements that are more important than others.

The Bible is very clear about certain elements that comprise a proper church gathering – the faithful teaching of the Scriptures by a male pastor/elder, prayer and singing. There are certainly other Biblical elements such as the sacraments of communion and baptism as well as the giving of offering and the exercising of spiritual gifts that can also be part of the weekly gathering, but the New Testament is not explicit on when or how often those should happen. So, the first question is whether or not a church is including the prescribed elements into an orderly and God-honoring service.

The reason why additional questions must be asked and why choosing a church is so hard is because there’s some wiggle room for how God’s people decide to conduct a service (or liturgy, depending on your church). For example, we are commanded all throughout the Bible to sing, and Paul clarifies that we can sing Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. We’re also told to “sing a new song to the Lord.” So, clearly, we’re not limited to the Psalter or hymnal. Another example is communion. You can find churches that partake in communion weekly, monthly, quarterly, or even annually. Which is right? What does Paul mean by “often” in 1 Corinthians 11?

Another issue we’ve encountered over the years is what version of the Bible is used or recommended by a particular church. Some are “1611 King James Version only!” in spite of the fact we have discovered many more reliable source documents since 1611 that have allowed us to have even more accurate and reliable versions available to us today (sorry, rant over). Some use the New International Version, or as some call it, the “Nearly Inspired Version” because of some of the translation choices and omissions. Either way, there are people – and I have been one of them in the past – who judge a church and/or preacher based on what version of the Bible they use. The reality is though, that most Christians don’t even look at that. They buy a Bible based on how the cover matches with their shoes or whatever, not on which version it is. It’s been said the best version of the Bible is the one you read, and that’s mostly true. As far as the church setting, it matters more the preaching is faithful to the Bible in general than to the KJV, NIV, ESV or any other commonly accepted version for an Evangelical church. Obviously there are version created by specific cults, such as the New World Translation (Jehovah’s Witnesses) that should be an immediate red flag.

I think the point has been made that there are many factors to consider when choosing a church, some of which are more important than others. So, what are the most important factors?

The content of the sermon

Why do I phrase it that way? Why not “the preaching”? Because “the preaching” is typically understood as both the content and delivery. The simple fact is that not every preacher is Charles Spurgeon or John Piper. Some men have a gift for expositing the Word of God, others have a gift for public speaking, and a blessed few have both. Ideally you can find a church where the pastor is at least somewhat gifted in both. We have been to plenty of churches where the pastor was a solid, wonderful, learned man of God, but who was not as dynamic or confident in the pulpit as we would have liked. Conversely, we’ve witnessed more than enough preachers who could captivate and rile up a crowd, but said nothing worth listening to. We attended a church for the first time recently where the pastor read from a manuscript, looking at the congregation 10 percent of the time, versus our previous pastor who was able to preach from notes and looked at the congregation 90 percent of the time. Both preach biblically-sound sermons, but their delivery is different. Is one better than the other? It depends. Really. I personally prefer more eye contact and the connection and authenticity to which it lends, but I also really benefitted from the content of the manuscript sermon. What really matters is whether or not God’s word is faithfully preached. In other words, the content of the sermon.

Music Matters

There is one element when it comes to church that has proven to be one of the most divisive over the years – music. Music is powerful for many reasons. It’s scientifically proven music affects our emotions, and it has been a part of human life and worship since the beginning of time. I’ve even heard it said that since everything is made up of vibrating atoms that all of creation is literally a song, sung into existence by our triune God. It’s no wonder the Bible is full of songs from beginning to end, from the song Adam sang in the Garden of Eden about Eve as recorded in Genesis to the songs sung by the innumerable multitudes to the Lamb of God in heaven as recorded in the Revelation of Jesus Christ. In fact, whole books of the Bible are songs. Music immensely important to God, and it should be to us as well.

Have you ever heard it said, “The music really doesn’t matter. What really matters is the preaching”? I have. In fact, I am guilty of saying it as if it were wholly true, and now want to repent of it. The fact is, music does matter … a lot. That statement, I have come to realize, is not only usually a righteous-sounding lie by the one proclaiming it, it’s an over and mis-used reactionary statement targeted at the people who attend churches solely for the music without any concern for the quality of the sermon content. While it’s true the content of a sermon, given that it is an exposition and application of God’s Word (or, at least it should be), ought to be given the most weight when considering what church to attend, I’ve come to realize a church service is a holistic experience. Just like it’s inadvisable to marry someone who may be outwardly very attractive but is a terrible person, it’s inadvisable to attend a church where only one of the two elements are satisfactory. The preaching may be great, but if you’re struggling to express yourself in song to your God because the music is a style you just can’t enjoy or get into, or because the song lyrics are shallow, repetitive and/or man-centered (more on that in a moment), you may need to keep looking. However, I must state unequivocally that the lyrics are ultimately more important than the style if you’re forced to choose one over the other.

There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of songs that can be sung in church (whether they should be is another thing!), so it’s fair to say that the values and even theology of a church is revealed by the few dozen or so songs they choose to allow into their repertoire. If words matter, and they do, then it matters even more what words we sing to and about the one, holy, high and exalted Lord of all Creation. The words matter because we are to worship Him “in Spirit and in truth” and we don’t want to lie to or about God. The words matter because, as Paul says in Colossians, we teach one another about God and the truth of the Bible through our corporate singing. Thus, it’s imperative we are accurate and biblical in our expressions and words. Some songs are outright problematic or just ridiculous (there’s actually a song registered with CCLI – the primary worship music licensing organization used by many churches – titled “Fire” which has for “lyrics” the word “fire” repeated about thirty times. That’s probably not one that’s going to top the charts anytime soon). However, some songs have subtler issues of bad theology or have a very strong focus on us instead of God. Good churches should be discerning about the songs they sing and be willing to reject what may be popular if necessary since we’re more likely to remember a song than the sermon.

Another important aspect of music is the quality and delivery of it. We are not only commanded to worship God through song, we’re told in multiple places to do it skillfully. In the Old Testament, not just any Schmo was allowed to play an instrument or sing in the temple. It was to be done in a way that was reverent, authentic and un-distracting by those equipped and called to do so. Nothing has changed for us today. In some cases, it might be better for a congregation to sing a cappella or use a recording if there are insufficient or insufficiently talented musicians. It’s important for a church to be that church and not try to emulate something out of reach in regard to talent or capabilities. Not every church can have a full band, lights, smoke and gifted, charismatic leaders (and in most cases, they are better for it!). Each church needs to find the point at which the line is crossed between doing the music well and un-distractingly to where it’s trying too hard to do or be something it cannot do or be.

Church is not a daycare

Another element to assess, though not as important as the previous two, is the children’s ministry. We have attended churches where the answer to “How’s your children’s ministry?” is “What’s that?” because the congregation was so small the preacher would be alone in the sanctuary if all the requisite help was directed toward childcare. We’ve also been to churches where screaming babies and restless toddlers (and restless husbands waiting to get home to check the score of the football game) were a regular occurrence, and the pastor carried on with the sermon as if there was no competition for our attention. We’ve been to other churches where the children’s ministry was robust, Gospel-saturated and well worth entrusting our children to. We’ve been to some churches where the “children’s ministry” was a glorified daycare service to keep those little distractions out of “big church.”

Regardless of whether or not there’s “children’s church” for kids over the age of seven or so, you should be able to discern quickly if children are valued and seen as a mission field to be taught the Gospel at every opportunity, or if children are viewed as one bumper sticker I recently saw (and hated) expressed: a “huge financial burden” who should be kept from distracting the flow of service and interfering with the comfort of adults at all costs. Personally, I think it’s good for kids over the age of seven or so to be in the main service with their parents learning how to listen and worship in the church context, not just watching Veggie Tales and making crafts that will get left on the van floor to clean up next week. At the end of the day (and this life), it the responsibility of parents to teach their children the Gospel and Word of God. If you can find a church that loves your kids by teaching them the Gospel and the Word of God, that’s a huge blessing that should only serve to augment and reinforce what you’re already doing at home. That being said, a massive children’s ministry should have considerably less weight in your decision process.

Connecting digitally

While also not an element with the weight of the sermon and song content or the authenticity of a church body, there’s certainly something to be said for a church’s digital presence, and their website in particular. Fifteen years ago we attended a church that had a pitiful website, to put it honestly, but where we attended for four years anyway and grew and were loved. However, in 2021, there’s really no excuse for a church that has even an inkling of a desire to draw new and younger people to not have a reasonable website. The cost and difficulty of creating and maintaining a professional-looking, up-to-date website has decreased significantly in the past decade, and just about anyone with even a little computer savvy can make something presentable.

We are yet again looking for a church as I write this and have viewed way more websites and read way more statements of beliefs than we’d like. Some websites are modern and easy to navigate, make it easy to find the two main things we look for with ease: the statement of beliefs, and the leadership composition. Other websites were stale, poorly designed and hard to get around. You can imagine which ones racked and stacked better on our list of “possibles.” On a side note, I’ve also found recommended reading/listening resources as a good gauge of a church’s theology. On another side note, and to all the churches out there that still do this, cheesy spinning gifs get my mouse pointer moving toward the “x” in the upper corner of my browser even faster than seeing “KJV Only.” Gifs have not been cool since the 90’s, and even then that’s debatable.

Wrapping it up

When it comes to choosing which church you will serve and thrive in there’s a lot to consider. The atmosphere matters. The existence (or lack thereof) of genuine love and “brotherly kindness” matters. The quality of the coffee … maybe. Ok, not really at all. The content of the sermon absolutely matters. Next to that, the music matters most and is a solid indicator of the theological depth and accuracy of the church leadership since they are ultimately responsible for what is preached as well as sung. Then, consider other elements – were you welcomed? Invited to lunch? Remembered the second week? Told about other Gospel-centered churches in the area (this is huge as it means they care more about you connecting in a good church so you can thrive, not just so you can add to their numbers and bottom line)?

Finding the right church is not easy, and I encourage anyone who’s looking right now, or who will do so in the future, to take heart and trust that God will lead you where you need to be. It may not be where you love every aspect of it. In fact, I think God intentionally makes it so there’s always something or someone who manifests the imperfection of each church so we’re reminded of the perfect “worship service” to come when, and only when, Christ returns and the sin that causes all the dissention and disagreements in the capitol “C” Church is done away with and we all see Jesus for who He is, and each other for who we are – redeemed sinners created to love and serve God and each other. Until then, find a church where you can serve, thrive and experience the love of God through the love of His people – even if there are crying babies and music you may not know. Finally, and most importantly, don’t compromise on the essentials. Sound, Biblical teaching is paramount, followed closely by prayer and the song content. Get those right, and everything else will either come together or come to matter less.

Sowing in vain?

By David A. Liapis

As a military family, we have had the opportunity to live in many places around the U.S. and even the world. When we move into a new house in yet another town this summer, we will have reached one dozen places we’ve called home in the last 17 years. While the adventures and relationships we’ve developed have been many and enjoyable, there are certainly drawbacks to this transient lifestyle. One of them is the simple fact we rarely get to watch things grow.

Everyone in my family loves things that grow, and every place we go we plant seeds and/or young plants and trees, hoping against hope to get to enjoy blossoms, fruit and lush greenery. However, we pack up and leave when the Air Force tells us to, and that’s inevitably before the raspberries yield, the trees take root or the veggies get big enough to eat. We go through the same ritual every time, and every time the result is the same – a feeling of disappointment that we have, yet again, sowed in vain. However futile as it may seem, I know when we arrive at our next home, we will sow seeds, plant flowers and hang on to optimism that we will see results.

Our Christian life – whether sharing the Gospel with others, trying to raise our children to know and love the Lord, or making a positive impact on the people we encounter – is very much the same as my family’s gardening life. We do the work of sowing seeds, often not knowing if or when any growth will take place. As much as we want every seed to be a bean plant that will sprout in a day in mere damp paper towel, we don’t have any idea what kind of seed we’re sowing or how long it will take to sprout. Sometimes there are immediate results, which is very satisfying to our impatience; but much of the time, even most of the time, we don’t see results for weeks, months, years, or ever.

The truth is, we need faith the goodness and sovereignty of God to fuel our efforts and hope. There’s a reason God chose to use the analogy of sowing seeds and so many other agricultural references in the Bible – because even the sowing and successful growing of physical seeds into useful and beautiful plants and trees is wholly dependent upon God. Spiritually, we are called to sow, and in some cases water, but God gives the growth (1 Cor 3:6) – and in his timing.

Just as our sowing and planting as a military family is not in vain because, one, we enjoy it, and two, those who have moved in after us have undoubtedly enjoyed the fruit of labor, our spiritual sowing, watering and waiting is not in vain even if we don’t see immediate or even Earthly results. We have to remember that it’s God who gives the growth. Paul the Apostle encourages us in Galatians 6:9-10, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially those who are of the household of faith.”

The deconstruction of my faith

By David A. Liapis

I grew up as a believer. My parents were believers as well, and there was never a time I can remember not being taught what an American Christian was supposed to know. It was in the books we read, the shows we watched and the songs we sung. Thirty years later I can still remember the Wee Sing! tunes and words.

I grew up believing, like so many others, in what I have come to realize is a lie. It was all a big lie, backed up by propaganda and conditioning to conform our minds and cause us to blindly and willingly go along with the plan. After all, so many people’s pocketbooks rely on generational acquiescence to the grand narrative.  

What was the catalyst? What snapped me out of the stupor I had been in for so long? It was actually while reading the Bible, especially the words of Jesus. There were things Jesus said that contradicted what I had embraced, and it took years to admit my worldview was at odds with Jesus. The more I was willing to question the very “truths” that motivated me as a young man, the more I began to understand that so many people who buy into the modern narrative, myself and my family included, do so ignorantly. However, there are certainly those who knew and know better who are out to make a buck at the expense of anyone gullible enough to buy into the system.

Some of the main points Jesus made while he walked the Earth were very counter-cultural and even paradoxical – the way to life is death; love your enemy; honor the emperor, even if he is wicked; that to “gain the world” means losing one’s soul; and that those who love and follow him are “not of this world,” but, rather, are citizens of a greater kingdom and subject to a higher calling from a higher king … the King of Kings. How did these truths taught by Jesus begin the deconstruction of my faith? Simple. The object of my faith was wrong.

I grew up having faith that the U.S. government, Capitalism and Christian morality – a.k.a. the American Dream – would lead to a life of prosperity, comfort and security. My faith was strong, and my commitment to doing my part as an evangelist of patriotism was demonstrated by the way I lived. I, like so many others, was looking to the institutions of men to be my functional savior in this life. The problem is that Jesus doesn’t just want to be our Savior for the life to come, he wants to be our Savior now. He wants us to look to him and his Word for the source of hope and purpose in this life even if (and especially when) the American Dream fails to come true. He wants to give us hope even when the government we have loved and served turns on us, when the economy causes all we possess to vanish, and when we realize the enslaving nature of hypocritical and false morality.

Yes, there is deconstruction of faith going on in my life, but it’s faith in things I should have never put my hope in in the first place. On the other hand, the faith I have in Jesus Christ as my Savior, in the Bible as his inerrant Word, and the sure hope of Jesus’ return is growing.

How to cancel according to the Bible

By David A. Liapis

Author’s note: This is the fourth article in the series, “How to be a Biblically ‘woke’ Christian”

“You’re canceled!” are words many people have heard over the past few years for committing various cultural and political sins. While some of the reasons for canceling are legitimate reasons someone should not be given or allowed to retain a platform or be taken seriously (such as racist ideology or sexually abusive language or actions), there are also many other instances of people being shunned and shamed for saying or doing things that, until recent years, have been considered normal, such as saying that sin (as defined by the Bible) is wrong, that science is real (as in, males are males and females are females, and are intended to mate and reproduce with the opposite gender), or that a person should be respected no matter what color of skin they have or gender they are (as in dismissing people’s opinions just because they have white skin and are male).

What’s most concerning about “cancel culture” though is not the hair-trigger of a society waiting to cancel anyone for anything. It’s the fact there’s no place for redemption. Culture’s mindset is “once canceled, always canceled.” This does two things. The first is that it creates fear in people’s minds – fear that one wrong comment/post/Tweet or hasty action will effectively end their relationships, jobs, and future. While we should all be careful what we say and do, the hyper-sensitivity and unforgiving nature of the cancel culture can be terrifying. The second thing cancel culture does is attempt to remove the message and example of redemption from our society and minds.

The theme of redemption is long-beloved by religious and non-religious people alike. All you have to do is watch a movie or read and book to find a redemption story of rags to riches, bad to good, lost to found, etc. Collectively, we love redemption, to the point it’s as if the desire for it were implanted in our very souls … because it is. Ever since the first man and woman lived and sinned in the Garden of Eden, the story of redemption has been both desired and played out in the history of mankind. Of course, this story reached its crescendo in the First Century when the God-man, Jesus Christ, was executed on a Roman cross, effectively bearing the just punishment for the sins of man that we should have to bear, and making a way for us to be redeemed. Paul the Apostle says this in Colossians 3:13-14, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (emphasis mine)

This story of redemption found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the only canceling we should really be concerning ourselves with, is attacked and obfuscated by our current cancel culture. As humans, we need to know that redemption is possible – in relation to both God and our fellow man. We need to know that second chances are available, and that as a society we can all relate to failing (because we all do it all the time) and can therefore extend understanding and forgiveness when necessary and appropriate. We need to all get Biblically woke and start telling people about how instead of people being canceled by culture, sin was canceled on the cross.